29 February 2012

Leap Year

It is the last day of February, and the final day of leap year, 2012. Tomorrow, the year returns to the regular counting system: March and all subsequent months have their normal number of days. Of course, February had its normal number of days this year as well, but it had one extra normal day, as it does every four years.
When Jews have a leap year to prevent Pesach from occurring in January, a whole month is added!
And on this last day of February and the final day of leap year a heavy snow has fallen. After a whole winter of little or no snow and above average temperatures, a winter storm passed through the area. I would add ‘maliciously’ to the last sentence but that would ascribe a consciousness to Nature that I know it does not possess, though it pleases me to think it does. This precipitation is a wet snow because the temperature remained above freezing, and the snow retained too much water and fell too much like leaden clods than as feathery flakes. Shoveling became a miserable chore best left to younger daughter who is home for day. I refer to the snow as heavy also because it is inches high, and right now the driveway is impassable.
Normally, a snow day does not cause me much concern: having been a teacher for forty three years I always relish this holiday-like break. But today, for the first time all winter, I want to go to the Cities and the driving will be difficult. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is being performed at the Ted Mann Orchestra Hall at the University of Minnesota, and my friend sings in the chorus. I look forward to hearing her voice. I look forward to seeing her after all these years. I look forward to hearing her add her voice to the chorus.
I think downstairs in my vinyl collection is a copy of Britten’s piece, purchased in the fervor of my anti-war days. It seems an appropriate moment tin history to present Britten’s piece, but my decision to be in attendance has everything to do with harmony and peace and nothing to do with protest. Though I am stupidly annoyed by the snowfall.
And so I will wait until noon and then maneuver the car down the driveway and out onto the plowed roads and wend my way slowly toward Minneapolis. I will listen still to the Wailin’ Jennys sing “Bold Riley,” a song I have written about earlier. The Jennys’ voices and harmonies are so beautifully and appealingly vulnerable, and especially on this song, that I continue to re-play them in order to experience the vulnerability and beauty. And that too is peace.   

27 February 2012

How are you, how are you?

Lately when someone starts a conversation inquiring of my state of being, I find myself (often a problem in any case!) rendered speechless. The simple statement, “How are you?” puzzles my will.  I recognize that this query is often meant as an opening to conversation, and that I am not really expected to respond at all to the posed question. I acknowledge that the question serves as a lubricant to open the psychic mechanisms and allows them to loosen and run more easily. Or it is meant to avoid the mechanisms all together. “How are you? “Fine, and you? “Oh, fine. How’s _____?” Or the question invites leaking: By indirection find direction out. But I am never sure at what level or intensity to begin? I do not think it appropriate to rev the engine in the cold for fear of damaging it; even intimacy requires some slowness and subtlety. At what depth should I start the conversation? Shall I enter slowly, as when I step very cautiously into the ocean depths acclimating myself in small steps to the temperature of the water until up to my neck I am acclimated and can immerse myself fully in the sea; or is it best to just run aggressively in until the water is at my knees and then dive full body under the incoming wave.  I suppose I could respond, “You don’t want to know!” in which case the conversation ends immediately. I prefer not to, I have answered.
As words “How are you” are meant more as a wedge than a worry, meant not to pry but to pry open. My will is puzzled: sometimes I just look at the time on the clock on the wall and begin there. I am, however, expected to say something, and truthfully, I don’t of late know what it is I am supposed to say: though, if the questioner is not an intimate acquaintance I respond with the cliché: “I’m good, you?” Of course, to be “good” is to be nothing: what does ‘good’ mean in that context? Sometimes, when I ask this question some actually answer “Fabulous,” and frankly, I haven’t the foggiest idea how what to say to that response. I’m not sure what that could mean, ‘fabulous,’ and sometimes I feel that I don’t really want to know. This awareness might only exacerbate my own self-absorbed sorry state.
My closer friends don’t seem to ask the question: they grab my hand and head right into the water. They know they are eventually going to get wet anyway!
It is an odd statement, “How are you?” I suspect I ought to wonder not “how are you?” but “where are you?” Or sometimes I might ask, “So, what are you reading?” The start of conversation crosses boundaries and the border guards are on alert. 

22 February 2012

Needing Need

Thoreau writes, “That day dawns only to which we are awake.” I think he referred to a spiritual awakening because lately I have been arising well before the dawn but I don’t feel very much awake.  It is as I have said quiet and peaceful out here in these early, early morning hours, and I do like to see as the day dawns the color of the air change slowly and perceptively, and then, suddenly, as if a switch had been turned on, it is day. But I have been up for hours, and out there it is still dark, and I feel ready for a mid-morning nap.
I have always risen early. At the beginning, there was school, and school always begins before the business work day. As a teacher I was required to arrive ahead of the students, and public transportation runs on schedules. The 6:41am from Penn Station was my steady ride, and so I awoke at 5:30am to account for my morning ablutions and the anticipation of subway delays.
And then it was my own children who had to early arise and be ready to meet school buses, and I arose early to ensure their preparations. And now that they no longer require my aid, I cannot sleep through the hours when I am used to be awake and active. And now I am just tired.  And when I am tired, I wonder . . .
I’ve been thinking about need. Too much of what I am about to say seems to me now cliché, but I want to express the ideas anyway that I might see them. I think we all have needs, and one of my strongest need is to feel needed. Feeling needed gives me a sense of presence, and announces to myself that I serve a purpose beyond being a mere place-setting, that I am not alone, and that in my absence there would exist not a space but a hole. And to need, too, demands presence, and in the expression of need I declare “I exist, please attend honestly to me,” and I come to exist and offer existence to the other. Of course, too much need moves beyond presence and becomes burden, and perhaps relationship entails finding the balance between expressing and offering need.
Ethics is in part the practice of need.  

18 February 2012

Burlington, et al.

This is a beautiful campus and a wonderful city. I have always loved Burlington, and spent three wonderful summer gigs here at St. Michael’s College. Interestingly enough, when Ithaca, New York was built it was modeled after the city of Burlington, Vermont. I have spent considerable time in Ithaca over the past four years. I know where all the pizza parlors are located there. So, now I seem to have moved states but the place remains familiar. I even know where the pizza parlors here are located! But I feel uneasy and I consider the source of my disquiet. I am considering this:
When the second child goes off to college, there will be nobody home to whom I will be an immediately present father. I will be an absent parent. In my life the children will still have presence but not be at all present; wherever I turn in the familiar worlds we have moved, they will not be there, and at the end of the day when I return home they will be out and somewhere else. In their lives I hope I will remain a presence, but I will not be present: they and I will experience an independence none of us for several decades have imagined. All of our present scripts will be useless. Words that have been spoken for years will have lost their context and will be meaningless; events that have regularly taken place over the years will cease to occur. A certain awkward dynamic will reign; the house will function but there will remain empty space; movement will be easy but uncomfortable. A quiet will exist that I have known only in very brief moments over the years, and I suspect the once longed for silence will feel to me oppressive. I suppose this is when folks like us begin to think of acquiring a dog as an antidote to the aloneness, but the cats are still young and there is little chance they will choose to leave home. Finally, to quote from the song, “The John Birch Society,” “There’s no one left but thee and me, and I’ not sure of thee.” In the game now the pin-ball will have only two knockers against which to strike, and it will fall into the hole without too much restriction. There will be no high scores on this machine. Only two pieces are left on the checkerboard with very few moves available. I’ll have to learn new games. My position in the world shifts as I become the father without children.
I know that this is the essence of the ‘empty-nest syndrome:’ when the children all leave home the parents must again confront each other alone in relationship. A great many events have occurred over the years of parenting. A great many things have changed in life because of the events of parenting, and when the children leave, there is little now that remains through which our attention to our bond can be deflected to obscure the nature of the relationship. We stand before each other not anew but in new perspective.
And so I think it is not really important which place ‘feels’ right to her, though clearly this is the right one All of these colleges would feel the same to me. The problem remains that when she leaves I must change, and this stark reality colors my perspectives on any place we visit.
Finally, her leaving home reminds me that I am older, and that these extensive years of parenting has ended, and I have now to learn whole new ways of being and embark on a new life in the world without their availability to deflect my attentions.

15 February 2012

Mansfield Park

There is a great deal of romantic intrigue and social jockeying in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Early in the novel, Maria Bertram marries the pompous and extremely boring Mr. Rushforth (I never approved of this connection, by the way) as an affair of convenience. The visit to the Grants of the young Crawfords, Henry and Mary, brings not only an air of chaos and irreverence to Mansfield Park, but leads to a variety of potential flirtations:  Edmund Bertram, the younger brother, falls in love with Mary, and the flirt Henry vows to make Fanny fall in love with him. In the process, he falls in love with Fanny but knowing too well his character, repulses him. Besides, Fanny loves Edmund.  Of Mary’s affections we are never too privy, but she seems receptive to Edmund’s approaches.
And then there is the explosive (well, at least for an Austen novel!) finale when Henry Crawford suddenly runs off with the married Maria (Bertram) Rushforth and her younger sister, Julia, elopes with Mr. Yates. The Bertram family is crushed, and their troubles only increase when the older son, Tom, becomes dangerously ill and close to death after a debauched week in London drinking and eating. Things do not look good at Mansfield Park. Of course, all ends somewhat happily: Fanny and Edmund marry, and Susan, Fanny’s sister, assumes Fanny’s place at Mansfield as ward. Tom survives a chastened man. The Bertrams resign themselves to Julia’s marriage, though they cannot forgive Maria’s sudden flight with Henry Crawford. No matter, his soon tiring and casting off of her and Maria’s eventual retirement with her bothersome aunt, Mrs. Norris, justly condemns her to a solitary, dull but rather contentious life away from Mansfield Park.
But with all of this talk of love and marriage, it is remarkable to me how suppressed the passion in the novel remains. That passion must be all buried in the prose. I cannot imagine any one of the characters ever taking off his or her clothes in front of the other, much less engaging in sexual activity. Kissing seems out of the question, and except for an occasional arm linking during a casual stroll on the grounds or on the ramparts in town, there is no evidence of physical touching. Though Fanny wishes to be in the company of Edmund, and though Henry avows his strong, undying affection for Fanny; though Edmund longs for relationship with Mary Crawford, there is no evidence of any feverish desire or passionate drive to couple. It is as if the characters are chess pieces whose moves are determined by the rules of the game. There is a stiffness and propriety that denies all evidence of passion and life.
But towards the end the narrator—who occasionally appears as “I” in the text—reports Edmund’s growing interest in Fanny Price; he comes to accept that she could be his wife. And the narrator says of this change in Edmund: “I purposely refrain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people.” Passion here is something to be overcome by the establishment of formal relationships. But the next phrase complicates the issue:  ‘”unchanging attachments” may be transferred from one to another, though in what time scheme depends very much on the nature of the individual. Thus Austen suggests that what remains unchanged is the passion that has established the relationship in the first place though the object of that passion can be varied. Passion underlies the behavior, though custom and propriety suppress its appearance. The constancy is passion.

10 February 2012


Propinquity. WikiDictionary defines the word as a noun denoting nearness or closeness; propinquity means to be in close proximity. The Oxford English Dictionary offers more specificity to the word’s sense: propinquity in space refers to a neighborhood; in blood relationship it indicates near or close relationship; in belief; in association to one’s nature or disposition propinquity refers to similarity or affinity; and in time propinquity signifies a nearness or near approach. Of course, all definitions of the term refer to a physical, temporal or emotional attachment. Of course, psychologists have defined propinquity as a principle, and described the propinquity effect as the tendency for people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those whom they encounter often, thus forming a bond between any two in regular close proximity. I’m afraid this seems rather obvious to me: how, indeed, form any relationship with someone whom one rarely encounters? My early memory of watching The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis is probably where I first heard the word: Wikipedia reminds me that in an episode Zelda Gilroy assures Dobie Gillis that they will soon fall in love because they will always be seated next to each other in school as a result of their last names. I loved that show, though it was Maynard G. Kreps with whom I had greatest affinity. “Work??!” Alas, despite propinquity, Zelda and Dobie never became a pair.
Of course, these definitions turn propinquity into something beyond an effect: propinquity becomes a force that demands presence. In Austen’s Mansfield Park poor Fanny Price desires merely to be in the company of Mr. Edmund Bertram, whom she loves though has no hope of attracting; and Mary Crawford is distressed that the absence of this same Edmund Bertram whom she loves though with some hope of success, might lead to a transfer of his affections to another young lady whose company he now enjoys. I guess propinquity demands lovers’ constant company: it requires that they never part. And propinquity thus inspires distress and discomfort, for in absence, propinquity suggests, the heart must grow colder. Doubt fills the space between lovers. And so there must be no space permitted.
Propinquity as a force requires discipline. 

08 February 2012

New Old Memory and Fanny Price

Fanny Price, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park says “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every waybut our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Of course, Freud did a great deal to explain the workings and misworkings of memory, and Spinoza might suggest that memory always starts in the body, that the mind is, in fact, the idea of the body. Neurophysiologists like Antonio Damasio give scientific credence to Spinoza’s position.
My memory this morning started in the body. I was driving home from an early morning run with Gary. Today he celebrates his 62nd birthday. Tomorrow he enters his 63rd  year. I rounded a slight bend in the road and there, just to my East, was the local elementary school and the parking lot was filled with the cars of school personnelteachers, administrators, maintenance and custodial staff. And I suddenly experienced a great pressure localized mostly throughout my stomach and chest, a pressure such as I might feel when I arrive too late at the station only to watch the train pull away, or when I watch my child go through the security gate at the airport. And then I attached some idea to the feeling, and I recalled all of the mornings that I had arrived at the school parking lot in the early morning hour, before any students had yet arrived, and added my warmth and movement to the awakening life of the building. In my memory I experienced what the cliché refers to as a flood of emotions, but in fact it wasn’t emotion at all—the sensations were all visceral and I searched about quickly to locate the source and then I remembered. I have in my life learned so much about school: all those cars and all those years. Like just missing the train.
To have a good mind, Spinoza reminds us, we need a good body; the more complex the body, then the more complex the mind. So it must be that the memory demands an active life. This morning the source of memory appeared clear: it started in the body and soon consumed the mind. And though the memory faded the feeling of the body remains. And I can call up my life at school at the provocation of the body.
Fanny is correct that memory is most wonderful, and I think she would be amazed what we have found out about memory.